Ask a Pro

Randy Buck on Racing Schools

While being a professional race driving instructor may not be included in The Family Feud’s survey of the top 7 coolest jobs to have, it definitely deserves a place on the “really cool” side of the job spectrum.  Granted, it’s still work, but where else can you get paid to “play” outside with race cars at places like Laguna Seca?

My old pal Tommy Fogarty, previously an instructor at Skip Barber, used to break me down with his occasional workday updates. “I just spent the morning talking to Alex Van Halen about drumming.”  “I just drove a Lamborghini Diablo through the corkscrew.”  My personal favorite was he once called me while Sammy Hagar was in his passenger seat so I could listen in to the discussion about Cabo Wabo tequila.  Yep.  That sounds more fun than spending 8 hours a day running reports in a cube.

One of the longest tenured and most respected members of this eclectic fraternity of racing professors is Randy Buck.  Like all of his contemporaries, Randy started out with aspirations of winning Monaco and did manage to win an SCCA regional Formula Vee title, but the old racing dilemma of “you need to pay to play” derailed that goal.  But rather than turn his back on the sport altogether, Randy got involved in the racing school business and has been a professional instructor for 23 years.  He currently works for the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, in addition to being a member of a Ferrari Challenge team and a driver coach for McLaren North America.  In other words, he’s seen about all there is to see with four wheels and a motor.

Randy even had to sit through a two day audition that I had with Skip Barber about 10 years ago.  Talk about reality TV potential!  I was offered a chance to compete with four guys for one spot to become a part-time Skip Barber high performance street driving instructor.  My credentials: two years of karting and a lot of burnouts and doughnuts in high school and college.  The first day we did some driving drills in the Dodge Neon and although I wasn’t very impressive, I didn’t make a fool of myself.  It was day two when I unraveled.  The drill was to drive a large Dodge Ram pickup on a slick track and get the rear end to come around with just steering input, no brakes.  I sucked.  For the life of me I couldn’t get that rear to break loose.  Randy sat in the passenger seat as patient as a monk giving me calm pointers and words of encouragement, but after 25 chances I was still plowing straight through the corner with a monster push.  The result: I was summoned into Mr Buck’s office and sent packing at the end of the day.  Funny thing is years later it all clicked in a dream and I think I now know how to spin the bleeping truck!

Bulseyeview is grateful that Randy took some time to answer a few of my racing school inquiries.


Bulseyeview:  We know that people are capable of some crazy feats behind the wheel, what is the strangest thing that you’ve witnessed a student do on the track?

RB:  I think the strangest thing for me with students are the ones who seemingly can’t follow really simple directions during a class.  I get it that not everyone can be really fast or even half way competent in a race car, but there are things that shouldn’t be that difficult for someone who presumably has driven a car on the street for years to follow.  As an example, after following a lead car around an exercise for many laps, to suddenly forget the course direction (this would be on a racetrack with very few options) and go the wrong way for no apparent reason is odd.  Or to make the decision to not follow the three cars in front of them (that ARE going the correct direction) and suddenly go a completely different route..?

Bulseyeview:  Any trips to the emergency room?

RB:  Luckily I have never had to deal with a trip to the emergency room (knock on wood) for either myself or a student I was directly working with!

Bulseyeview:  Speaking of students, it seems that you often have celebrities of all varieties come through the racing school.  Can you share your favorite celeb story?

RB:  My favorite celeb story was doing a school back in the early 90’s with Jerry Seinfeld.  He was there with two of his high school buddies for a 40th birthday outing. There are typically a few oddballs in a class, but Seinfeld’s class randomly had an unusually large cast of oddball characters, including a guy who introduced himself as “the next Indy 500 winner” (and of course was a terrible driver).  At the end of the 3-day school, one of my buddies was having a beer with Jerry and asked him, “So you’ve pretty much been watching all these other students for three days and just building a list of stuff to use in a comedy routine haven’t you?” And Jerry answered, “YES.”  I heard sometime around a year later about a routine he did at an LA concert where he talked about “racing people and students.” Cool thing was, if you didn’t know he was a celeb, you would have thought he was a completely regular guy!

Bulseyeview:  In general, who performs better: Rock Stars or Movie Stars?

RB:  I would say movie stars drive better than rock stars.

Bulseyeview:  In your line of work you get to drive some pretty amazing cars, do you have a favorite?

RB:  Yeah, I’ve been lucky to be able to drive a LOT of really cool cars over the years! And often on a racetrack where you can really enjoy them! Hands down favorite car so far is the Ferrari 458, followed by a Ferrari F40.  The McLaren MP4-12C is really cool too.

Bulseyeview:  Favorite circuit to drive on?

RB:  Favorite track in North America is Mt. Tremblant.  In the world it would be the Nordschleife!

Bulseyeview:  You guys spend a ton of time on the road, do you have a go to restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we should know about?

RB:  That’s right up there among the highs and lows of “The Life.” Discovering a really good restaurant near a racetrack where you thought you were going to be doing McDonald’s is a true delight! Often however, it’s mediocre fried or fast food.  Lake Street Cafe in Elkhart Lake (near Road America) has the most awesome Steak Cordon Bleu I’ve ever tasted! The Boathouse near Lime Rock is pretty good.  And of course you can’t forget Baja Cantina in Carmel (fantastic Cadillac Margaritas)!

Bulseyeview:  You have worked with many aspiring race drivers, do you have one who stood out above the rest?

RB:  Two standouts for students I’ve worked with were Sean Patrick Flannery (actor from the movie Powder and the Young Indiana Jones series) and John Edwards (currently racing Grand AM). Sean did some celebrity Dodge Neon races that Skip Barber ran and he was a natural! John Edwards started racing with Skip Barber at age 12 and back then he was more mature and savvy in a race car than most guys three times his age!

Bulseyeview:  Can you name your top 3 young drivers you have assisted?

RB:  The list of young racers I’ve worked with over the years is pretty long…… Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden would probably be the three that are the most prominent at the moment.

Bulseyeview:  Have you ever had a middle age person off the street arrive at school with no experience and shock you with their talent?  I have visions of an accountant from Iowa who could have been Ayrton Senna.

RB:  Not really.  It’s pretty much true that most of the good students were either young (usually with years of experience already in karting) or slightly older with some sort of previous racing/track experience.  I’m yet to run across the Midwest, never been in a race car, Ayrton.

Bulseyeview:  Who is the fastest instructor out there?

RB:  Ha, ha.. That’s the million dollar question! I can say with complete honesty that it’s not me.  But pretty much everyone else I work with thinks it’s themselves! I’ll lead off my list with Kris Wilson, Kelly Collins, and Mikel Miller (not to offend anyone else I left off the list, as there’s a lot of great instructors). Todd Snyder gets the honorable mention for being pretty much as fast those guys and the hands down winner for answering the age old “I think so and so corner can be done flat, what do you think?” question! Years ago when the Skip Barber cars had just got some new bodywork and wings, there was a debate about whether Turn 9 at Laguna was now possibly flat or not (a relevant question as the wings were primarily for looks and any downforce would have been accidental). Todd came in after one testing session and announced “Yep, it’s flat alright.” As all around him were in the process of picking our jaws up off the ground, he finished the sentence with “Of course I went 30 feet off at the exit, but I was flat……..”

2013 Racing Season

Kimi Back to Maranello!

So the front end of the 2014 grid is almost complete!  Kimi is taking his talents back to the Scuderia Ferrari for a second go round to create a super team with Fernando Alonso.  While on paper this sounds unbeatable, I’m seeing giant red (Rosso Corsa Ferrari) flags waving all over the place.  Didn’t Ferrari learn from the Schumacher era that the way to go about winning championships is to design a car around an unequivocal number one driver and then bring in a loyal soldier (Irvine, Rubens, Massa) as the number two?  Red Bull certainly did.  Keeping Vettel and Newey together and bringing in Daniel Ricciardo to ride shotgun will likely propel Vettel into the Schumacher stratosphere of wins (91) and titles (7).

Side Note I: Enzo Ferrari would roll over in his grave if he knew his beloved Ferrari was losing out to an Austrian beverage maker.

Does anybody remember the last time Alonso had a teammate with equal status and equal speed?  I think the aftershocks can still be felt from the McLaren F1 headquarters in Woking.   In 2007 Fernando could not cope with the perceived lack of attention/respect he was receiving due to the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, a British driver who McLaren had been grooming for stardom since his junior karting days.  He quickly alienated himself from the entire team and after all sorts of chaos was gone after one year.

Having come so close to carrying the Ferrari to titles over Vettel the past three years, imagine what Alonso will do if Kimi gets the upper hand and starts winning races?  It will be Alain Prost vs Nigel Mansell all over again.

And when Kimi last drove for Ferrari he won the 2007 title right out of the gate, but then seemed to lose motivation.  So much so that after getting routinely handled by Massa in 2009, Kimi left to go drive rally cars and dabble in Nascar.

So how will this partnership work?  Answer: It won’t, but it will certainly spice the show up for us, the fans!

Side Note II:  Seeing Massa go may spell the end of Brazilians at the top echelon of GP racing for the first time since the 70’s.   That is a sad day!  Emmo, Piquet, Ayrton, Rubens, Massa.  What an amazing run of talent.  With Schumacher dominating the beginning of the 21st century, his influence has turned F1 into a sport for Germans.

Side Note III:  Speaking of German’s, I hope Hulkenberg gets the call to replace Kimi at Lotus.







The Amazing Schumacher’s

Last night while enjoying a nice relaxing bubble bath, my mind started drifting off to a Montreal memory in 2003 when the Amazing Schumacher Brothers were entertaining F1 fans the world over with a little family squabble to decide the Canadian GP.  The race was under a safety car period with only a handful of laps remaining.  Michael was in the lead, Ralf was second, but Ralf clearly had the better car as evidenced by the chunks of time that he had been making up prior to the caution period.  The atmosphere in the stands was electric with anticipation over the crucial restart.  Michael was attempting a little gamesmanship to get the jump on his younger sibling, who was glued to his gearbox as they were about to go back to green.  Big Brother Michael slowed the pace way down to let the safety car vanish off into the distance, setting the scene for a mano-a-mano battle.  Montoya, Alonso and Raikkonen were lurking but for all their collective brilliance, they were not in the Schumacher’s league on this day at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

As Michael exited the final hairpin he dropped the hammer, but Ralf was right there with him, Ferrari and BMW V10’s screaming in unison.  Michael, sensing that Ralf would have had a tow down the long final straight, decided to abort the getaway and brake tested the field.  He then swerved from side to side to get more heat in the tires.  Ralf was having none of it.  He was sitting on the Ferrari’s gearbox with a twitchy right foot.  I swear I could see Michael’s eyes watching Ralf in the mirror and could feel the brotherly love.  Michael then faked like he was going to swerve again and this time Ralf took the bait and tossed his car into a slide.  Instantly, I heard the rev limiter and saw wheel smoke and black rubber being laid down by the Ferrari.  Just like that, the Maestro was gone!

Watching those two rocket off along the St Lawrence river played out in my mind like a movie scene where the characters are gradually transported back in time from the glamorous world of F1 to their youthful days of innocence at the family run karting track in Kerpen, Germany.  To a time when a young Ralf would have no doubt been cursing in his helmet as he strained every sinew in his 9 year old body to keep up with his older brother, who in turn would be cracking up over duping his little brother yet again.  To a time when their mother would be standing at the fence motioning to pit the karts for the night so the boys could have supper and tend to their studies.

I made a pilgrimage to this historical little piece of track in 1997.  On an epic day of buzzardry that included driving a rental car through Eau Rouge at Spa (at 52mph – yes my dad was driving) and witnessing the famed Nordschleife at the Nurburgring, our party headed to Kerpen to get a firsthand look at where the dynasty began. Arriving in town in the early afternoon, we went into a bank where a teller, who could have passed as a Schumacher sister, knew the general location and sent us on our way.  After ten minutes of cruising narrow two lane farm roads, we were beginning to second guess our guide until we came around a corner and were treated to the unmistakable buzz of two-stroke kart engines at full tilt on the other side of a tree grove.  The anticipation of what we were about to witness rivaled the feelings I had when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s secret vault on live TV in 1986.  To be honest, what we discovered was a track that resembled the kart tracks in Dixon, CA or Medford, OR, but I still felt like I was standing in front of the stage where the Beatles played their first gig.

The sheer unlikelihood that two brothers would go from this rather ordinary karting track in the middle of a farming community to the pinnacle of motorsport on raw talent alone is one of the great stories of modern racing.  Everybody knows the gaudy stats that Michael produced, but as the only two siblings to both win a GP, they made quite the brother act.  Four 1-2 finishes.  A three year stretch (2001-2003) where they both placed in the top 5 in the championship each season, winning a remarkable 64% of the races run (MS – 26 and RS -6).  And with uber manager Wili Webber negotiating their salaries, the brothers earned enough money to buy Luxembourg.

The thought of two brothers going after the same prize at the pinnacle of their chosen profession is interesting to ponder.  Obviously, the Manning brothers are the gold standard, having both quarterbacked teams to Super Bowl wins.  In racing, Al and Bobby Unser come to mind as a very successful tandem.  But the norm seems to be one alpha dog per family while the other is grinding just to stay in the game.  Examples: Bernard vs Albert King, Emerson vs Wilson Fittipaldi, Cal vs Billy Ripkin, John vs Patrick McEnroe, Gilles vs Jacques Villeneuve, Dominique vs Gerald Wilkins, Bill vs Brian Doyle-Murray, Michael vs Tito, The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) vs Andy Gibb, Marv vs Steve Albert.  The list goes on and on.  I’m having a chuckle over the thought of Larry Bird having a brother named Perry Bird who averaged 7 pts/gm for the Atlanta Hawks over 5 seasons before heading back to the farm in French Lick, IN.

Ralf often gets incorrectly labeled as a bust and, granted, his career did end with a thud at Toyota, but in his 4 seasons alongside the revered Juan Pablo Montoya, Ralph won 6 races to JPM’s 4.  He was a match alongside Giancarlo Fisichella and Damon Hill at Jordan.  He easily handled Alex Zanardi and a young Jensen Button at Williams.  Tied for 38th on the all time win list is a great career if your last name isn’t Schumacher.

If there was ever a weekend to solidify both brothers as courageous top notch professionals, the San Marino GP weekend of 2003 did so for me.  On this dark weekend, the Schumacher brothers were racing while their mother, Elisabeth, lay dying in a hospital in Cologne after suffering a freak head injury from a fall.  The boys strapped their helmets on and did what they were born to do in qualifying, placing their cars 1-2 on the grid and then rushed off to Germany to be by her side.  The next morning, just 2 hours prior to the race, Elisabeth perished.  Rather than withdraw to mourn, Michael and Ralf honored her by racing.

And what a beautiful display it was!  At the start they held a sibling drag race down to the first corner where Ralf prevailed.  For the next 15 laps, Michael tried every trick in the book to get by to no avail.  They were back in Kerpen with their mother on the fence willing them on.  I was on my couch at 5:00am with tears of inspiration in my eyes.  In the end Michael prevailed and Ralf faded to 4th, but the mental fortitude that they displayed and the emotions that came out after the race will forever be imprinted in F1 lore.  “Schumacher!!!”